During the summer of 2015 Ben Mylius, Avana Andrade, Noah Sokol, Jason Daniel Schwartz, Chris Hebdon, and Nelson Walker received a grant to begin work on their project titled “Encounters with Place.” The abstract below describes the project in it’s initial stages, and David Haskell is working with the group as an advisor and collaborator. Elements of their findings will be incorporated into his environmental writing courses and hopefully lead to additional curricular pieces (e.g., course modules or perhaps a course itself).

Project Abstract

Ecological crisis is conceptual crisis. Large-scale phenomena like climate change reveal the extent of the challenges that we face in understanding particular places, and the limitations of the specific disciplinary lenses by which we understand ‘place’ more generally. We propose to engage with these issues through a multidisciplinary investigation of the Maze District, a region in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The Maze is a place rich with possibilities for ecology, ethnography, archaeology, environmental history and philosophy. Here, we will produce a series of reflective pieces of work and a set of questions and provocations, melded together as a multimedia website, which will serve as a creative teaching tool in future Yale and Sewanee undergraduate and graduate place-based courses.

The members of the project team bring a diverse range of perspectives and experience. Ben Mylius brings expertise in law, jurisprudence, and philosophy; Noah Sokol in soil science, ecology, and digital/radiojournalism; Avana Andrade in environmental humanities and community development; Jason Schwartz in environmental history, writing, and pedagogy; Chris Hebdon in anthropology, archaeology, and film. One of the key benefits we anticipate from our time together, as individuals highly trained in particular disciplines but with a shared focal point and a collaborative set of questions, is our capacity to act as outsiders for each other: providing an external, interested lay perspective to each other’s expert work, such that each of us is able to reflect more clearly individually on the strengths and limitations of our own disciplinary lenses, and so we are able to reflect more clearly together on the ways these lenses map over each other to create a series of responses to the Maze which still leave space for the dynamic, nonhuman elements of the place itself.

The benefits of this project to our individual and collective disciplines, to the Yale-Sewanee partnership, and to the environmental and place-oriented communities at both institutions include: investment in teaching tools that can be used at both institutions; provision of a pedagogy encouraging multidisciplinary collaboration, self-reflexive contemplation, and disciplinary development; place-based engagement through the Maze; public scholarship via our website; and advancement of humanistic inquiry, in the context of place, which seeks to re-imagine and reflect upon our disciplinary tools.

The project is a collaboration between the project team, supported by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Sage Magazine, the Yale Earth Laws Project, and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Project Alignment with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies

This project furthers the goals of the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian and Place-Based Studies in a multitude of ways.

  • It creates a hub for approaches that span multiple disciplines and perspectives, to the benefit of all of them, linking the project team in the exploration of a particular place – the Maze – to collaboratively-identified ends;
  • It builds upon and deepens the partnership between Sewanee and Yale by providing teaching tools that can facilitate exchanges between students at both universities;
  • Through its engagement with the Maze, it provides the seeds of a pedagogical approach that can be deepened and extended in the context of the Southern Appalachians;
  • It develops public scholarship through its publication and presentation outcomes (detailed above);
  • It engages fundamentally with place, in active terms, as a source and prompt of questioning, and thus as co-implicated with the development of new approaches and theory, rather than a passive slate over which ‘finished’ theories are deployed;
  • It facilitates a nuanced approach to place and context through the lens of the Maze as a particular, concrete place;
    It advances humanistic inquiry through seeking, in the tradition of the ecological humanities, to enrich and deepen the spirit of such inquiry via integration into ecological context;
  • It raises awareness of the many complex issues for both theory and practice, or thought and social engagement, in engaging with changing places;
  • It integrates methods and approaches from disciplines across the spectrum of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, with a focus on their differences and tensions;
  • It collaborates with the local community, in the Maze, and over the longer term, in the environmental humanities/placemaking communities at both Sewanee and Yale.

Project Impact

The project will make a substantial contribution to place-based studies at both Yale and Sewanee, both over the years of the grant process and into the future.

The Public Scholarship outcomes of our project are the responses we will produce in our chosen media (encompassing film, audio, photography, text, and spoken word), which emphasise the multifaceted nature of the Maze and explore our disciplinary frameworks, their strengths and limitations. Ben Mylius will write a creative nonfiction piece on the relationship between the Maze and contemporary legal philosophy (which he will also present at the 2016 ‘Environmental Humanities Now’ conference). Noah Sokol will develop a multimedia essay response, which combines photography, soundscapes and written reporting and reflections, to examine the relationship between soils, geology and geography in the Maze as elements of ‘disturbance’ on geological, biological and human time scales. (This essay will be featured in the Sage Magazine digital edition and the project website.) Avana Andrade will complete a series of podcasts in two different genres: a serial narrative podcast which will be produced through Sage Magazine’s ‘Habitations’ podcast; and a collection of non-fiction podcast interviews, which will premiere through the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy’s ‘On the Environment’ series. Jason Schwartz will develop an interactive timeline of the region’s history over the last 4,500 years, and author a feature article for publication in Sage Magazine. Chris Hebdon will produce an ethnographic film and accompanying series of short documentary interviews, to be screened at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale.

As well as the separate publications outlined above, our work will be collectively launched and discussed at a launch in Fall 2015, through the lens of the Environmental Humanities Initiative, at Yale, and the Finding Your Place Initiative, at Sewanee. These launch events will be designed to take the questions and conversations we have begun with our project into the public dialogue in both university communities, and beyond. Our work will also be memorialised in our multimedia website. This will be designed as both a presentation of our research findings and a performance of the pedagogy and approaches we ourselves have experienced and adopted. It will begin a repository of place-based knowledge and public scholarship, as these different elements have been spearheaded through our project. In the longer term, we hope it will be scalable, and become a complement to the teaching tools developed through our project (below) .

The course outcomes of our project will articulate the questions, readings, and provocations that will become our teaching tools. We will weave our responses together and present them through a workshop and presentation at both Yale and Sewanee, and then launch them to the broader public via a multifaceted website. We will also finalise our teaching tools for an undergraduate course in the Environmental Humanities at Yale, and several courses in the Finding Your Place Initiative at Sewanee, including Env Studies 350 and 351, “Nature” Writing and “Nature” Writing Practicum (see David Haskell letter of support). We envisage the structure set out in these teaching tools as mirroring the trajectory of our own project, incorporating critical, productive and presentation stages for students to pursue in their own work. In the longer term, we are excited about the possibility of integrating the experiences and place-engagements of groups of these classes &  students into the website we create, as a resource for the public, and for institutions and communities around the world.

Final Report